1890s Bathing Costume

My recent trip up north to Angel Island got me thinking about how Victorians experienced the seashore during the 1890s and thus this post was born. It’s a little off our usual beaten path but we think that you’ll like it. 🙂


During the Victorian Era. During the late 19th Century, various forms of specialized dress rapidly developed and especially when it came to sporting activities. This was an especially revolutionary development for women in that it signaled that the status of women in society was changing. Where once Women were expected to remain focused solely on domestic activities, they were now increasingly leading public lives and often independent of men (granted, this was an uneven process that continues up to the present).

One of the most dramatic developments was the development of “bathing costume” which allowed women to go swimming at a lake, river, or seashore while maintaining decorum and modesty. However, this was not a smooth process and there was resistance from the more conservative elements to the point where the wearing of bathing costume was either completely illegal or subject to stringent regulation to the point where women could be arrested for indecent exposure if their bathing costume failed to meet local standards.

Le Monitor 1893

Le Moniteur de la mode, c. 1893

Specific bathing costume can be traced back at least the 1850s but it wasn’t until the 1890s that bathing costume emerged as a major trend, spurred by the idea that going to the beach was considered to be a healthful social activity.

Too often we think of people in the Victorian era as being bored or even morose. These photos humanize an era by capturing those elusive smiling Victorian faces.:

And the market responded… 🙂 The catalog advertisement below is only one of the wide variety of ads that were out there during the 1890s:

Jordan, Marsh &  Co., Women's Bathing Suits  Spring and Summer, 1897  Mohair plus water plus a hot summer day, what could be more comfortable than that?:

Page From An 1897 Jordan Marsh Catalog

Bathing costume during the 1890s usually consisted of a top, blouse, short bloomers or knickers and a skirt. Stockings and special “bathing boots” made of canvas and cork soles were also worn, all with the idea of the woman not showing too much skin. The fabrics used for making bathing costume were usually wool flannel, wool jersey, mohair, linen, cotton, or some combination thereof. Needless to say, these were not intended for serious swimming (that would come later) but rather wading or simply lounging on the beach. Style-wise, bathing costumes had a nautical theme with sailor collars and the predominant use of blues and blacks.

Victorian Bathing Suits

Posed Picture, c. 1902; Library of Congress

Below are some examples of bathing costume. First, here is one from c. 1878 – 1880 where we see the basic silhouette and style that was to predominate in the 1890s starting to become established:

CI50.77.1a–c_F

Bathing Costume, c. 1878 – 1880; Metropolitan Museum of Art (C.I.50.77.1a–c)

CI50.77.1ac_B

Rear View Of The Top

CI50.77.1ac_F

Front View Of The Top

CI50.77.1b_F

The Bottom

Here’s a later version from the 1890s:

M992.115.2-P1

Bathing Costume, c. 1890s; McCord Museum (M992.115.2)

As can be seen from the above, bathing wear had a nautical style reminiscent of naval uniforms of the period, a theme that was to continue on into the early 1900s.

However, even back in the 1890s, there could be dramatic exceptions to the norm when it came to fashion and that was especially evident with this “startling bathing costume” pictured in the August 22, 1897 edition of the San Francisco Call:

fashion1_sfcall_aug22_1897

The above outfit is certainly a departure from the typical dark-colored nautical-theme in that the base color is white, constructed of horizontal layers of white wool serge. The model is wearing only the knickers and a one-piece bodice/shirt. She appears to be perhaps holding a skirt or cape of sorts. What is interesting is that the front and back of the top match the horizontal layers of the knickers and it appears to almost be a one-piece outfit. This is definitely fashion-forward beach wear of the time. 🙂

Finally, we leave you with this picture below of some frolicking beach-goers, all dressed in variations of the standard 1890s bathing costume style:

Santa Monica 1898

“Out for a Time,” Long Beach, c. 1898; California State Library

We hope you have enjoyed this little summer excursion to the beach. 🙂